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"You're Not the Boss of Me!"

How to respond to provocative proclamations from the mouths of babes.

"I am going to lock you in your room with no food for 10 million days!" —a 4-year-old’s response to his mom when she told him he couldn’t have a popsicle before he ate his growing foods.

"You’re a poopy, daddy face!" —a 3-year-old’s reaction when her father took away the tablet when the timer went off, even though she was in the middle of a game.

Children making alarming threats and hurling vitriol at their parents is not a new phenomenon. Kids have been known to say a lot of outrageous things when they are angry or frustrated. But the venom kids are spewing seems to have reached epic proportions during this pandemic.

No surprise. As the effects of the coronavirus extend and continue to deeply impact children’s daily routines, their threshold for coping with stress has plummeted. This means they lose it much more quickly and frequently. (See this blog post for more on how to help kids who are spiraling out of control during this time.)

Children may be reacting to a limit you have set that they are non-plussed about or a task/activity they are struggling with. Or, it might be that they are feeling sad about missing their friends or grandparents. Sadness turns very quickly to anger (for adults, too.) I have heard many stories from parents over the past eight weeks about their children having huge meltdowns over seemingly minor things. Once they calm down, they blurt out statements like, “I miss Ms. Melissa” (the child’s teacher); or, “When is Nana coming to visit?”

While provocative statements and threats, especially out of the mouths of babes, feel so wrong, it’s important not to interpret and react to them at face value. Your child is not a budding sociopath. Children don’t mean what they say in these moments.

While your logical reaction might be that you need to teach your child a lesson through some kind of disciplinary action that shames him for this inappropriate outburst, any big reaction—especially being successful at yanking your chain—is reinforcing and likely to result in more of these surly (or “obnoxious," as one parent recently put it) statements. Further, when you react harshly, it can escalate, versus reduce, the distress your child is experiencing that led to the inappropriate proclamation to begin with.

What’s the best way to respond to these provocative proclamations?

Ignore the provocative behavior, but don’t ignore your child. Acknowledge the underlying feeling and then focus on engaging him in something positive and productive. “I know you are unhappy that I took the tablet away before your game was done. That was frustrating for you. But that’s the rule. I am going to prepare some lunch, now. I’d love a helper when you’re ready.”

By responding in this way, you are, in effect, saying to your child, “I love you so much that I will not fuel this flame by reacting, or participating in an unhealthy power-struggle, but I am happy to engage with you in something loving and productive.”

At the end of the day, what your child wants most is your attention. This kind of response is the most powerful, and positive way, to teach her the rules of engagement. The goal is to be responsive—to show empathy for your child's struggle while maintaining the limit—not reactive, which just escalates the negative encounter and reinforces the unwanted behavior.

If your child persists relentlessly, then extricate yourself. Let your child know that you understand that he is angry/frustrated/sad, and that those feelings are okay, but that the words he is using to express himself are not acceptable; they make you feel uncomfortable.

Let him know you are happy to help him find other ways to communicate his feelings, but if he can’t control his hurtful words, you will need to take a mommy/daddy break. (This could mean going into your room and closing the door.) Let him know you will come back in a minute or two and that you can’t wait to reconnect and start over. This enables you to remain calm and loving while setting a clear limit.

Remember, you have no control over what comes out of your child’s mouth—only she determines that. What you do have control over is how you respond, which shapes your child’s behavior.

Here are some recent examples of how parents have successfully responded in these situations:

Jenna, 5, is constantly trying to climb on the counter to get to the candy cabinet. When her dad puts a lock on it to prevent constant power struggles, she tells him, “You’re not the boss of me! It’s my mouth and I eat what I want.”

His response: “I know you don’t like that you can’t take any sweets you want at any time. I am not asking you to like the rule, and I don’t expect you to…Your snack choices for today are apple slices or a yogurt stick. Let me know when you’ve made your decision.”

As Jenna continues to try to engage him around her anger at his rule, he responds: “I am going to build a house for our dinosaurs. I’d love a helper when you’re ready.” Jenny crosses her arms over her chest and grunts, but when she sees her dad is not changing his mind, she grabs some apple slices and eventually joins him to play.

Laila is sitting with her son, Amir, 4, to support him during an online preschool meeting. Laila tells Amir that she has turned the audio back on because it’s his turn to share. Amir shouts, “Turn it off! You are stupid about computers and should go back to school yourself, Mommy.”

Laila is keenly aware that these 2D encounters with his friends and teachers are stressful for Amir. He is excited to participate in them when she announces the meeting is about to start; but once it begins, he alternates between getting very silly and putting his head down. So, when Amir makes this nasty statement to her, she knows that it is coming from a place of discomfort for him—that this medium is already stressful for him and that he gets especially anxious and freezes up when it’s his turn.

So, she responds, “I know you really want to see your teacher and friends, but it feels uncomfortable to do it on the computer. I understand.” She then brainstorms with Amir ways that he would feel more comfortable participating. They agree that he will write to his teachers to explain that he doesn’t want to be called on during the meetings. They ask if, instead, he can dictate an email with what he wants to share with the class that Laila will send to the teachers who can read it aloud to the group. This solution puts the kibosh on Amir’s vitriol towards his mom and reduces his overall stress around the online learning experience.

It is your job to teach your child many lessons as he grows, such as how to accept limits, adapt when she can’t get everything she wants, and manage her emotions in appropriate ways. How you approach teaching these lessons makes all the difference. As it turns out, often the most effective, loving approach is counterintuitive.

More from Claire Lerner LCSW-C
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